Psalm 139
Pentecost 2, June 3, 2018
St. John the Apostle

“Identity in God”
7Lord, You have always given bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor, today I believe.
Lord, You have always given strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak, today I believe.
Lord, You have always given peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart, today I believe.
Lord, You have always kept me safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am, today I believe.
Lord, You have always marked the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden, today I believe.
Lord, You have always lightened this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here, today I believe.
Lord, You have always spoken when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now, today I believe.
– Northumbria Celtic Evening Prayer

I know a man who was ordained when he was young and served in the Anglican Church for many years. When he retired, he had an identity crisis. Who he believed himself to be was tied to his work, and without a parish to shepherd his confidence turned to hurt and anger. His talents seemingly were no longer required as an honourary assistant or even a Sunday supply preacher. He looked farther and farther afield for work, paid or unpaid, which would allow him to wear the white collar that defined his self image. He would list the accomplishments that showed he was still useful for ministry when someone asked him “so, what do you do?”

That’s often the question we ask of others to get a sense of who they are. “What do you do?” The response is to describe ourselves by our activities: usually our work life and our other commitments. You might say, “I work at such and such a company as a [job title here]”, or “I volunteer with this community organization.” We can be asked, “what do you like to do?” and list our hobbies: more activities for our spare time. What we do and how we spend our time shapes our place in the world.

But what we do does not get at the heart of who we are. When asked, “Who are you?” We may start with our name. Names are unique identifiers: our given names mark us as individuals. Our family names tell a story of who our people are, where we have come from, or the group we have married into. They may point to our cultural heritage, our gender identification, our religious affiliation. But a name alone is not enough for us to explain who we are.

The level that fewer people are willing to ask of us is, “But who are you, really?” This deeper identity means turning to the relationships in our life to explain ourselves. I am a daughter, a mother, a parent, a lover, a co-worker, a counselor, a teacher and a learner. Each of the connections I form to another shapes me and holds me in a web of responsibilities. I have commitments that call for action, and deep grief and guilt when I cannot or will not fulfil them. I expect reciprocal behaviour when I reach out in love. I struggle to forgive when I am hurt. In this dance of relationship, I move from day to day, mostly knowing who I am in the midst of it all.

But when a relationship changes dramatically, I am thrown into an identity crisis. When much of our time revolves around a set of tasks and attitudes to care for someone we love who is ill, death brings unexpected consequences. There is grief, and relief perhaps, but there may also be a feeling of being set adrift. Responsibilities for the care of that individual end, which took time and energy to fulfil. Now the days have a different weight to them. That unneeded phone call to check up, the saving of a story to brighten their day. What we do is bound up with who we are, and who we are is bound up with the ones we do things for or with. So when a relationship ends, are we different people?

It may feel as though we have lost our balance point. But I don’t believe that we stop being a son or daughter when our mother or father dies. We don’t stop being loved or able to love when a marriage ends or a partner dies. Those relationships are rooted in memory and experience, not just our actions. When life shatters us by estrangement, death, or distance, we question who we are because our self-image gets shredded with the change in our responsibilities and loyalties. There is, however, one relationship that does not alter in substance either in our lifetime or beyond. And that is our relationship with God. Our primary identity is that each of us is a beloved child of God. At our core, this is who we are.

The writer of Psalm 139 speaks of this unconditional love from which all relationships flow:
“O Lord, you have searched me out and known me”. God lays a hand on each of us and claims us as God’s own. What the psalmist is expressing is an inescapable truth: I am known by God because I come from God and am connected to God all my days. I cannot ever truly hide from this reality even if I try to ignore it or flee from the Divine Presence or attempt to break the connection. This is a love that is not bounded by time or space or circumstance. It is not a matter of personal holiness or loveliness. God’s relationship is not based on how good a person is or what wonderful things that person does. It is a covenant without rules or time limit. That means that we will not be abandoned or despised when everything else in our lives fall apart.
All things change but the love of God. In this is our identity: we are loved and we are inextricably bound to our Creator and Lover.

God knows each of us intimately. God knows our bodies. Jesus told his followers that our Heavenly Father loves us so much that He has taken the time to count every hair on our head that ever was. God knows every fold of our skin, every wrinkle and mole, every cell. God understands our thoughts at such a deep level that we do not have to put our prayers into words except to share our hopes with other humans. Our fears and our desires: all the workings of our heart are known to our Creator. Even when we do not know what we want or who we are, God is there to affirm that each of us is a masterpiece in creation and a part of the grand plan.

The difficulty is this being enough to sustain us when our self-image gets bashed by the disappointments and losses in life. The really difficult questions are torn out of us. “How can God still want me?” “Where is God?” “Why did God let this happen?” “Does God care about me?” The answer in this psalm is that love and forgiveness and healing will chase after us until we turn, with tears, to embrace them. We can’t ever understand the depth of God’s love for each individual. The writer of Psalm 139 acknowledges this: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it”. We can, however, choose to trust that each of us is special and personal to God. This is because our faith does not proclaim a far-away deity who set things in motion and then watches eternity unfold from the couch like a retiree viewing a television program. God is involved in our lives, and touches us every day to remind us that we have been loved from the beginning and will be loved to the end.

This prayer from Ancient Israel is a reminder for the times when we are not sure who we are. When all else fails, our identity rests secure in the God who is always with us. Like the psalmist, we can affirm: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well… I come to the end- I am still with you.” No matter what we do or do not do, no matter how little we have loved or how much we have lost, God’s love continues to enfold us and name us as beloved. Amen.


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